A grand sweeping adventure set along the Silk Road in AD 700 China, "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" combines many elements of the classic trek western with the pageantry and mysticism of Asian period sagas. This is not surprising because its gifted director He Ping is known as the pioneer of the Chinese western.
A beautiful film with gorgeous natural locales shot by Zhao Fei, a collaborator of both Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" is chock full of battles with bravura swordplay, a sandstorm, much evil plotting, colorful costumes and a richly varied and evocative score by "Lagaan" and "Bombay Dream's" A.R. Rahman that is among the year's best.
To all of these elements He Ping brings a vibrant contemporary sensibility. "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" may be a period piece but there's nothing antiquated about it except an overly populated, initially hard-to-follow plot. As with countless Asian period pictures before it, it's best to go along with whatever happens and trust that the essential plot will grow ever clearer.
A journey across the Gobi desert during the Tang Dynasty proves to be even more perilous than crossing Monument Valley in the 19th century. In place of Indians there are Turkish hordes, and there's even a remote fort to be defended. But it would seem that there are more bad guys lurking along the Silk Road than there ever were along the Chisholm Trail.
The film opens somewhere along a western frontier where skirmishes with the Turks are escalating to the degree that a general in command decides to send his beautiful young daughter Wen Zhu (Zhao Wei) back to the safety of the capital city Changan (present-day Xian). To escort her he selects Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi), a soldier who is heading east on his way back to his native Japan. His petition to return has been approved, but then new orders arrive stating that he cannot go home until he has hunted down an elusive criminal.
Lt. Li (Jiang Wen) is no ordinary criminal but in fact a soldier who fought heroically under Wen Zhu's father until he refused an order to slaughter civilians taken prisoner in a clash with the Turks. He and his men since then have worked as guards for trade caravans traveling on the Silk Road from India and Arab countries. Although a superb swordsman, Lai Xi has his hands full, not only in escorting Wen Zhu while tracking down Lt. Li but also in trying to hire guards and taking under his wing a young monk carrying a unique and much-coveted Buddhist reliquary. In time Lai Xi and Lt. Li cross paths, fight to a draw and agree to postpone their big showdown until Lai Xi has completed his mission. Yet even with the support of Lt. Li, the travelers need more help if they are to complete their journey safely.
Peril and villains lurk everywhere, but in the foreground Lai Xi and Lt. Li, both handsome, imposing men, emerge as figures of gallantry comparable to the men of John Ford's cavalry westerns. They respect each other, and meanwhile Li and Wen Zhu (who is the film's narrator) definitely take notice of each other.
The thought that Lai Xi and Lt. Li — two fine men in the prime of life — are headed for gladiatorial combat adds poignancy to a film that has a resonance and reflectiveness more typical of westerns than "easterns." Indeed, as Ang Lee did in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," He Ping brings to his tale characters who are more dimensional than the usual symbolic figures of traditional Chinese period epics. Not only does the presence of a Japanese character add interest to the story, in this instance it also adds box office appeal. Nakai Kiichi, who has a Mifune-like presence and dignity, is a top star in Japan, as are Jiang Wen and Zhao Wei in China. Beyond its star power, "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" has an appeal that is universal.
'Warriors of Heaven & Earth'
MPAA rating: R for violence
Times guidelines: Standard period adventure violence; too intense for children.
Jiang Wen...Lt. Li
Nakai Kiichi...Lai Xi
Zhao Wei...Wen Zhu
Wang Xueqi...Master An
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a co-production of Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co. Ltd., and the Xian Film Studio. Director He Ping. Producer Wang Zhongjun. Screenplay by He Ping and Zhang Rui. Cinematographer Zhao Fei. Editor Kong Jinglei. Music A.B. Rahman. Action choreographer Alex Leung. Production designers Yang Guang, Teng Jie. Art director Dou Guoxiang. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours.Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 No. La Brea Ave., L.A.,  934-2944; Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and Edwards South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-1970.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times